Iowa City may repeal traffic-camera law

City staffers recommend ordinance dealing with cameras be taken off the books

A petition challenging traffic-enforcement cameras in Iowa City is valid, but the portion of it covering cameras is not timely, yet the city may repeal its camera ordinance anyway.

Oh, and cameras are not even installed yet and were not going to be any time soon.

Got that?

Those related and complicated pieces of information came out of City Hall Thursday. The short of it is this: City staffers are recommending the City Council repeal the ordinance that allows red-light and speed cameras to be installed in Iowa City.

At least one council member who strongly supports the use of red-light cameras – the city had no plans to use speed cameras – said he’d follow that recommendation, albeit reluctantly.

“The biggest reason I hate to repeal it is I get tired of about being run over every time I go to the post office,” said Terry Dickens, adding he’d still like red-light cameras to eventually go up at Iowa City intersections.

The City Council will discuss the issue at a work session May 14.

Thursday’s developments come after a year-long fight over traffic-enforcement cameras. A pair of Iowa City residents, Aleksey Gurtovoy and Martha Hampel, filed a petition last June seeking to ban the cameras.

After City Eleanor Dilkes denied two attempts on legal grounds, a third petition was deemed valid by the city on Thursday.

The petition proposes an ordinance that would outlaw traffic-enforcement cameras, drones and automatic license-plate recognition systems in Iowa City.

A successful petition forces the City Council to either adopt the proposed ordinance or send the matter to voters in an election.

However, Dilkes wrote in a memorandum dated Thursday that the portion of the petition dealing with traffic-enforcement cameras is a referendum and is untimely, because the City Charter says a referendum petition must be filed within 60 days of the adoption of the measure in question or not until two years after adoption.

The council adopted the traffic-enforcement camera ordinance on Feb. 1, 2012.

Dilkes said the sections on drones and license-plate readers were initiatives and timely, but the council has not authorized the use of those technologies and the city does not use them.

However, Dilkes, City Manager Tom Markus and other staff whose departments are affected by the matter are recommending the council repeal the camera ordinance anyway and adopt one similar in substance to the initiative portion of the petition.

Their reasoning is that the city has no immediate plans to install red-light cameras because the Iowa Department of Transportation is developing guidelines for the use of those and speed cameras on state routes, a process expected to last through the end of the year. Most of the intersections where Iowa City wants the cameras are state roads.

Dilkes also cited political opposition to the cameras by Gov. Terry Branstad and others in the Legislature.

“It is difficult to know when, if ever, the City’s ordinance will be viable,” she wrote.

If the council were to take such action, it could revisit the matter in two years.  That means the debate over traffic-enforcement cameras is not dead.

The council voted 4-3 in support of the camera ordinance last year. With a city election scheduled for this fall, the make-up of the council could be different in two years.

Dilkes said in an interview that even though her opinion is the city does not have to act on the camera portion of the petition, the petition did provide the impetus to recommend repeal of the ordinance. In that sense, the petition was successful.

Police Chief Sam Hargadine said he supports repealing the ordinance, but he wants red-light cameras in Iowa City at some point.

“I’ve not changed my mind that it would potentially save lives,” he said.

Council member Michelle Payne, who voted against the camera ordinance last year, said she has heard from very few residents who support the use of traffic-enforcement cameras, and she hopes the ordinance is repealed.

“I actually think that’s the best thing to do at this point because of the political climate,” she said. “We need more clear direction first.”Gurtovoy and Hampel did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

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